when the bird starts to sing – on the influence of organizational culture on your brand

one of the biggest realizations I have had from my marketing and branding experience is that a company’s success can never prevail only by investing in outside-facing interactions. many organizations (including some that I have worked with in the past) try too hard to build this impenetrable shield of brand perfection – they are portraying themselves as the customer’s best friend, the trustworthy, always-in-sync business partner, the ultimate experts in their particular field – without internally owning these qualities.

on the contrary. these organizations are, in fact, far from their desired, projected image. when one looks a little closer at what is happening on the inside, the picture is not pretty. you will spot places that are not taken care of, are rushed, full of unnecessary intrigue, encouraging people to go against their own values. usually, these organizations will insist on adopting a certain brand strategy that makes them look good without investing in the growth, maturity, and understanding of their internal culture. that attitude can be connected to people inside the organization not having an in-depth knowledge on how brands are built and how branding works. even if you do not come with official credentials in this field, like a university diploma in branding or business management, the main functioning lines of a brand can be simplified to a few basic common-sense rules. in this case, the life-inspired lesson, which is repeated over and over again in every Disney movie you like, is: you will only radiate on the outside who you truly are on the inside. even if you do choose to fake it, your house of cards will eventually fall (also, by the way, we, humans, are hardwired in our nervous system to pick up signals from people who are being or acting phony).  

with this view in mind, the emerging crisis that we are going through on a global level has revealed quite the cases of what I would call the corporate substance-showcase conflict.

this novel pandemic erupted at the beginning of 2020. aside from the medical and personal turmoil this event has brought on, the health crisis has also caused a stir in the business world. many organizations have been disrupted. clients have been lost, shops have been closed, production has been slowed down or stopped all together. extreme measures like laying off employees or furloughing them became a refuge that some companies needed to choose as their course of action.

for some, these moments of hardship brought them closer to a humble, vulnerable way of dealing with things. I have witnessed countless small businesses or solo-preneurs reach this level of piety in front of something that they know they cannot control (like a global pandemic). most of them, in their moment of vulnerability, actually managed to get closer to who they are as a brand. that inner transformation resulted in strengthening their ties with their communities (formed of fans and clients alike). from family farms to candle makers, coming forward with their struggles and including them as a growth experience in their brand maturation process is helping these brands show up and get relevant – in both short and long term.

admitting that you have reached rock bottom as a brand or that you are struggling is nothing short of brave. it implies knowing how to accept the status quo and then proceeding to act from the inside out. but for other organizations, the road to that quiet awareness about the impact of their culture practices proves to be a bumpier ride.

take, for example, Bird. before the pandemic, Bird was your typical Silicon Valley company, promoting good-world values and their electric scooter as a product. from the outside, there wasn’t much to complain about. they invested in their website microcopy, they included trendy mission statements. for the branding standards of today, one would not notice any reputational red flags. on the contrary, Bird had the advantage that in 2018, Quartz magazine called the company the fastest start-up to reach a $1 billion valuation. ever. in October 2019, Bird raised $270 million in funding. in January 2020, they managed to raise another $75 million. from that perspective, Bird benefited from the typical “unicorn” storyline, whose positive input is used to attract and impress venture capitalists, clients, and fans alike. from the point of view of their values, Bird describes its culture as caring and inclusive, leaning on values such as “creating a community”, “driving impact” and “bringing others along”. please remember these values for the upcoming part of the story.

as a brand, Bird tried to build that shield I was mentioning at the beginning of the article. they wanted to tick all the possible boxes and benefit from an impeccable brand reputation. and they would have gotten away with this outside-facing attitude, if it weren’t for those meddling kids. in this case, the meddling kids were their own employees, who have taped one of the poorest firing maneuvers out there, a feat the Bird management pulled off as a result of the COVID-19 impact on their company.

as I mentioned earlier, many have been negatively affected by the pandemic. it is unrealistic to expect a perfect answer to an unprecedented crisis of these proportions. but such a “cold and unsympathetic announcement”, as the writers at Corporate Rebels call it, is simply unacceptable. just listen to the 2 minutes of information (which was initially 30 minutes of planned meeting) that Bird decided to invest in announcing 406 of their employees about their jobless futures:

moreover, the employees who had a day off on that day could not log into their computers after the company announcement. thus, these people did not understand what was happening. actually, many people found out about their situation from watching the news. the HR follow-up was not prettier, as the Bird team seemed more interested in getting their company laptops and paraphernalia back than about their actual people, based off the account of a now-former Bird employee. one thing is clear: no matter how much Bird will invest in PR, building a positive brand reputation, or even in their marketing tactics, they will forever be remembered as the company that let their employees down in the worst way possible, in the worst of times. what is there to remember is that this whole situation could have been avoided, if the aspect of culture was properly taken into consideration. you can buy a pretty design, but you can’t throw money at cultural maturation.

the world is filled with plenty of Birds. their stories are pouring in with each passing day. in the last weeks, we found out that Uber fired 3,500 employees in a 3 minute Zoom call. Harvard, the most prestigious and wealthy university in the world, decided not to pay its subcontractors, even though its financial standings are fine (in the meanwhile, students have put up a petition to protest this decision and stand up for the).

at the make sense academy, we built this credo that humans are irrational beings. but they also, in their craziness, make sense. in all these cases, that is the main problem: their actions are not coherent with regard to their ethos. if you are Bird and you say you care about people, then don’t act in such an inconsiderate manner towards employees when times are tough. if you are Harvard, I am sure you can afford to pay one or two months of salary for your subcontractors (your students seem to share this opinion).

you can build a strong identity through state-of-the-art branding. but that externally facing façade cannot live long without the support of a matching foundation. that is your culture: the behaviors you encourage, the rules you enforce, the leadership you choose. the way you deal with the good and the bad.  

all of these actions speak on behalf of your brand. the bigger picture is made of all these little puzzle pieces. they send signals to people who have you on their radar in one direction or the other: that you represent a brand they can trust, or just a shield they should be wary of.

your culture matters. because the essence of that culture, together with your brand DNA, will guide your behavior through turbulent times. a healthy culture will translate into sane, coherent decisions. and it will make you make more sense to the world.

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